A few years ago a small study was making headlines by contrasting the carbon footprint of avocados with one of the world’s lowest carbon fruits, bananas. Tabloids such as Metro immediately chastised avocado lovers with captions such as: “We hope you enjoy your delicious avocado on toast as you slowly destroy the planet.” (1)
This was somewhat unfair. If people chose to put a slice of cheese on their toasts instead of avocados, they’d destroy the planet about nine times faster — not to mention meat. (2) To a degree, any fruit and vegetable is a conscious choice. Yet it is true that in the world of fruit, avocados are considered high carbon.
We wanted to know how high that footprint really is on our own farms. If it is as significant as the study claimed at around 2.3kgs of CO2 equivalent without transportation,* then we wanted to find out what we could do to reduce it. If it is much lower, then we wanted to understand what made the difference, so that we could help other orchards improve their impact.
This is why last year we commissioned an expert team to measure the carbon footprint of our Mexican avocado orchards. Results from the first two farms are now in, and while we did hope that they would be better than the industry average, the actual outcomes surpassed our highest hopes. They have proven that both orchards are net carbon negative — that is, for each kilogram of avocado that we produce, not only do we not add carbon into the atmosphere, but we take a considerable amount out.
In recent years, avocados have been caught in the crossfire of the media not only because of their carbon footprint, but for a host of reasons. As we noted in our previous article, when grown irresponsibly, their production can lead to local drinking water shortages, and potentially even small earthquakes when irrigation empties out underground aquifers. These were parts of the reason why we started to measure water use in minute detail and identified precision irrigation, among other factors, as an effective solution.
Another widely recognized problem is that, ever since avocados have become big business in Mexico, they attracted the attention of drug cartels. This is why we only work with family farms whose owners we know in person. When it comes to carbon footprint, however, it is harder to pin down how severe the problem really is and what actions are needed.
We asked our local sustainability partner, Dr. Javier García de Alba, to look into the matter. Dr. García de Alba is a professor at the Sustainability and Applied Ecology Laboratory of the University of Guadalajara and the director of EkoGlobal, an organization that advises farmers on environmental and social best practices.
He explained that the way the carbon footprint of avocados has been calculated historically is highly imprecise, because photosynthesis was either not factored into the equation, or was based on theoretical formulas developed primarily in the United States, where environmental conditions are somewhat different. It has almost never been measured using real, on the ground data in Mexico. Today, the availability of advanced scientific equipment enables us to do better.
The key to the new methodology that Dr. García de Alba and his team are employing is the CI 340 handheld photosynthesis system. The team calculates the footprint of farms according to ISO 14,064, the international standard for quantifying greenhouse gas emissions. They take into account every possible carbon source, including fuels, electricity use, packaging, food and other waste, as well as fertilizers. This is the business as usual part.
On the other side of the equation, armed with the CI 340 and a university laboratory, they are able to calculate sequestration with a precision that goes well beyond current standards. They take measurements on different leaves of different trees at different areas of the farm, based on their age and exposure to sunlight, weighing their values in a way that is representative of the orchard on a whole.
They take these data samples not once, but several times in a day as the sun moves through the sky, and then periodically throughout an entire year. The data that they are able to gather this way tells us more about a farm’s true carbon sequestration potential than anything that the industry has generated in prior years.
Dr. García de Alba has conducted this year-long assessment on three of the four orchards that we currently work with in Mexico.
San Cayetano, the farm of our long-term partner, Señor Jehova Cuevas, was the first to finish the process. After a detailed analysis of the data gathered through the 2020-2021 cycle, it was established that when all emission sources at origin are taken into account, the farm sequesters 260 grams of CO2 for each kilogram of avocado produced. Industry estimates tell us that shipping a kilo of avocado from Mexico to Europe generally produces about 210 grams of CO2. (3) This means that even after transport, San Cayetano’s avocado production has a slight positive impact on our climate.
We had felt that this was already a cause for celebration, but a few weeks later we received the results of the second study, this time from Fruticola Santa María, the orchard of the Jimenez family.
For years, they have consciously strived to create a model farm for sustainability. Last month, we detailed their impressive results in water footprint. This time, we can confirm that their efforts have also paid off when it comes to CO2. The farm’s carbon footprint is minus 3500 grams of CO2 equivalent. For every kilogram of avocado, the orchard takes 3.5 times more CO2 out of the atmosphere. This means that relative to its size, this enterprise has a real, significant positive impact on the climate.
Dr. García de Alba is currently compiling a detailed analysis on the key factors that produced these outcomes, but there are a couple of things that are already clear and relevant.
The first important thing to note is that Fruticola Santa Maria achieved this result without renewable energy — something that they plan to invest in the future, but have not been able to so far. Once they do, we can expect further substantial improvement.
We also know that they have an excellent water management system in place, and they make a heavy use of composting which reduces the need for sprayed organic fertilizers. Both of these factors have an impact on energy use.
As noted in our previous article, Fruticola Santa María also employs people on long-term contracts — many of whom have been there for over a decade — with decent pay, social security, paid holidays and bonuses. This means that the workforce is committed to the farm and knows its workings inside out. They do exactly what is needed when it is needed, without wasting resources. Dr. García de Alba says that this makes a bigger difference than most people realize, even in emissions and energy conservation.
We hope that Dr. Garcia de Alba’s analysis produces further tangible advice, that avocado growers across the region and beyond can use to make a poisitve impact on the climate. Until then, thank you for reading, and we hope that we could give you a refreshed perspective on what is possible when producers take sustainability seriously.